Catching up with Creed III
In Creed III, we catch up with Adonis Creed as he’s retiring a champion and settling into a pleasant life being a rich and famous celebrity. He’s enjoying his family life with his wife Bianca and his daughter Amara, and he’s become a successful manager and mentor to younger boxers. But Adonis’ past catches up with him when his old friend Damian is released from prison after 18 years. Adonis and Damian were as close as brothers as kids, but Damian is now consumed by jealousy, feeling that Adonis has been living the life that was meant for him.
I missed Creed III when it was released to theaters last spring, but I’d been wanting to find time to see it. There’s a lot to enjoy in the film, though I’m sorry to report that I feel like this Creed franchise has had diminishing returns; I loved the first Creed (and, after rewatching it last week, I still do); but I thought Creed II was OK but not great. It had a great set-up — the return of Ivan Drago and a confrontation between Ivan’s actual son Viktor and Rocky’s sort-of son Adonis — but I thought it was more superficial than I’d hoped, without the emotional depths of the first Creed. I feel similarly about Creed III.
The film has a great hook. I love the idea of exploring the trauma of Adonis’ childhood, and the scars those experiences would have left on the now grown-up Adonis. Damian is a “there but for the grace of God go I” version of Adonis. Arguably, Damian is right that Adonis HAS been living the life he should have had! It’s a great set-up for a story. And Creed III is anchored by two tremendous performances: Michal B. Jordan as Adonis, and Jonathan Majors as Damian. Mr. Jordan was tremendous right from the start in the first Creed, and it’s a pleasure watching him continue to explore this character. It’s fun to see Adonis being successful, and it’s also compelling to see Mr. Jordan explore how damaged Adonis still is. Meanwhile, wow, I had high expectations (having enjoyed Jonathan Majors’ work in Da 5 Bloods, The Harder They Fall, Loki and Ant Man and the Wasp Quantumania), but I was still blown away by Mr. Majors’ performance as Damian. He’s a near-perfect antagonist for Adonis. Mr. Majors brings an impressively massive physicality to the role — it’s scary watching others, even Adonis, step into the ring with him. More importantly, Mr. Majors brings heartbreaking depths of rage and jealousy to his performance. We can tell right from our first glimpse of the grown-up Damian that this man is a live-wire, a coiled serpent barely contained. Mr. Majors makes Damian’s pain and rage feel so real; it’s an incredible performance. (As you probably know, Mr. Majors has been accused of multiple instances of abuse. Mr. Majors’ trial has not yet happened; as a result, I am separating those accusations from my thoughts on Mr. Majors’ performance in this film. My feelings might change depending on the results of that trial. For now, that is my approach in writing about this film.)
I think the film makes a mistake in holding onto the truth of what happened on the night that Damian was arrested until very late in the film. (Please beware some minor SPOILERS ahead as I dig into the film.) I see so many movies and TV shows making this mistake these days. The drama would be stronger if they didn’t try to hide from us what the set-up of the story was, to keep it as a “mystery box” surprise for later. We’d have a better time empathizing with both Adonis and Damian’s behavior if we as the audience understood the truth of what was between them. I also think they needlessly muddled the key issue between Adonis and Damian by having the story point that Adonis’ adopted mother, Mary Anne Creed, had hidden all of the letters Damian wrote Adonis from prison. It seems intended to let Adonis off the hook somewhat for ignoring Damian, but the fact is Adonis did still ignore Damian, never making any attempt to check up on him in prison or to try to help him in any way. So why add that needless plot complication? (It just seems like an overly-convenient way to have Adonis see an important photo of Damian at just the right moment.)
More problematically for me, I felt the film’s second half dropped all of the interesting emotional stories set up in the first half. The first half poses tough questions for Adonis, exploring the negative sides of his love for fighting that brought him fame and fortune. We see how it’s damaging him, with his bottled-up rage and trauma, and his temper. We see how it makes it hard for his wife Bianca to live with him. And we see how it’s causing problems for his daughter Amara, who idolizes him and emulates him, to the point of getting into a fight at school. But the film doesn’t really build to Adonis’ exploring any of that; instead, it builds to him having to once again solve his problems by fighting — that is, by facing Damian in the ring.
The film fell apart for me at the moment when Adonis decides to fight Damian and Bianca goes along with it. Like anyone watching this film, I knew this was where the film was going; but I’d hoped they’d find a more interesting way of getting there, or more interesting stuff to do when that happens. But instead we just get a training montage that felt to me like a watered-down version of the training montages we’d gotten in the first two Creed films (less interesting without Sylvester Stallone’s presence as Rocky), without really showing us 1) how hard it must have been for Adonis to get back into fighting shape and 2) without showing the impact this period of training — which must have lasted months, right?? (though the film jumps over it in just about 5 minutes) — on Adonis’ wife and daughter.
The film sets-up a conflict between the closed-off Adonis and his wife Bianca, who is finding it hard to live with Adonis’ behavior… but the third act never gives us any real resolution to that. Similarly, the film sets up a conflict about Amara’s growing love of fighting. She wants her dad to teach her how to fight, and Adonis wants to do that, but Bianca objects. So Adonis starts teaching Amara in secret… and that never goes anywhere in the third act. The film also makes a point of showing that Amara comes to watch a boxing match early in the film — a fight between Damian and Adonis’ protege, Felix Chavez (José Benavidez Jr.) — but she gets scared by the violence and Bianca has to take her out. Then we see Amara happily coming to see the film’s final fight, between Adonis and Damian. Surely the prospect of seeing her own father get beat up in the right might be even more traumatic for this young girl, but the film doesn’t show her reaction at all, nor does it show either her or her mom Bianca wrestling with 1) whether to go watch the fight in the first place or 2) Amara’s reactions to the fight itself, and to actually seeing her father punch and get punched. I mentioned Felix Chavez a moment ago; the first half of the film explores Adonis’ relationship with this young fighter and his mom (played wonderfully by Selenis Leyva, who played Gloria Mendoza on Orange is the New Black). But after the dramatic events of the Damian-Felix fight, Felix and his mom drop out of the story until the very end. That felt like yet another missed opportunity for me, as I’d wanted to see what Adonis’ relationship with them was like after that fight; I wanted to see how all three of them reacted and what it took for them each to move forward.
Tess Thompson is a wonderful actress and I loved seeing her back as Bianca. She has some meaty scenes in the film; I’ve enjoyed seeing how Ms. Thompson and Mr. Jordan have developed these characters’ relationship over these three Creed films. I wish Ms. Thompson had more to do in the film’s second half. Same goes for Phylicia Rashad as Mary Anne Creed. I love this character, and Ms. Rashad is once again magnificent in the role, bringing such depth and nuance to every moment on-screen. I didn’t love the story they gave to Ms. Rashad here; in which Mary Anne is battling an illness; it seemed a little too unnecessarily melodramatic to my tastes, and for me wound up being a needless distraction from the main Adonis-Damian story. Mila Davis-Kent is fantastic as young Amara Creed. I loved the time the film spent exploring how Adonis and Bianca have been raising their deaf daughter. I was also delighted to see Florian Munteanu back as Viktor Drago! That was a fun surprise for me. I love that Adonis and Viktor are buddies now!!
In addition to playing the lead role, Michael B. Jordan made his directorial debut with Creed III, following Ryan Coogler (who did such a magnificent job directing the first Creed) and Steven Caple Jr., who helmed Creed II. Mr. Jordan does strong work as the director. He knows this character so well; it makes sense to me that Mr. Jordan would take more control of this film from behind the camera. There are a few moments of impressive technical flourish. I loved the shot of Adonis and Damian separated by the thin wall of the locker room behind the arena. I also loved the choice of having the crowd drop away from long sections of the climactic Adonis-Damian fight.
On the one hand, I understand and respect the decision to focus this story on the African-American characters, particularly Adonis and Damian. On the other hand, I really missed Sylvester Stallone as Rocky in this film. The Rocky-Adonis relationship was at the core, for me, of the first two Creed films. Having Sly/Rocky absent from this film made it feel to me like an important element was missing. (It also led to some plot problems that the filmmakers didn’t successfully solve, in my opinion. After Creed II made a point in showing Duke fail to successfully train Adonis — before his first match with Viktor Drago — it felt weird to me to see Adonis trust Duke for the even harder task of training him to fight Damian after three years of retirement. Also, I just can’t see Rocky’s not being at the late-in-the film funeral.)
While Creed III wasn’t everything I’d hoped for, there’s a lot that works. See this film for nothing more than to watch Jonathan Majors’ performance!! The entire cast is strong, and I continue to love these characters. I enjoy checking in on them every few years.
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